Feminists at the forefront of European struggles for justice

By Virginia López Calvo

The seventh European Social Forum (ESF) took place in Florence, Italy, between 8 and 11 November 2012. The ‘Women facing debt and austerity: resistance and feminist alternatives’ session, organized by a loose conglomerate of feminist collectives, was a feminist oasis in an otherwise gender-blind event. The result was a crowded room too small to accommodate us all: I counted more than 300 hundred participants, in a forum where the average participation in each workshop did not seem to exceed 100 people. 

To our joy, we were moved to the biggest room available in the Forum’s venue after the introduction by the World March of Women and the speech of the first speaker. The session lasted more than four hours and it featured an assembly-like format, with participants sitting in semi-circle in a rather horizontal arrangement, reflecting well feminist views of power distribution. After the three speakers had delivered their presentations, tens of women grabbed the microphone, having first patiently waited in a long queue for their turn.

Feminists from different parts of the continent highlighted the gendered impact the so-called crises have in European countries. Sonia Mitralia from the Women’s Initiative against Debt and Austerity stirred us with a testimony of rage and desperation from Greece: “Before the crisis the female unemployment rate was 12%, but it now stands at 30% and at 61% for those younger than 25”. Sonia remembered the times when feminists fought against forced maternity whereas today Greek women are refused the right to have children. “As healthcare is privatised, so increases the price of giving birth. Midwife assistance used to be free, but it costs between €800 and €1,600 today. Greek doctors are warning of rising maternal morbidity as many women can’t afford those fees.”

Christine van den Daelen from the Committee for the Abolition of Debt in the Third World (CADTM) spoke about the precarization of female employment in Europe with an increase of part-time jobs and of informal employment among women which will lead to further impoverishment after retirement, as these women will be entitled to significantly lower pensions than men. In Poland women receive pensions below the minimum wage, which is already very precarious. She pointed out that: “in Spain the Ministry for Equalities has simply been removed, while in Italy the budget allocated to work-life balance has de facto forced women to retreat to their traditional carer role.” Christine denounced that what we are witnessing in Europe is a further feminization of poverty and the destruction of past feminist achievements.

Later, Nina Sankari from Poland reminded us that Polish and other Eastern European women have endured the effects of this so-called crisis, merely the usual workings of neo-liberal capitalism, long before they hit the rest in Europe in 2009.

We dedicated the last hour of our meeting to sharing ideas for feminist mobilization to challenge the dictatorship of debt and austerity. Numerous calls for transnational collaboration were heard. Remaining grassroots and autonomous were popular proposals as well as the call to join forces with other movements that also oppose debt and austerity. The World March of Women presented their campaign calling for a feminist audit of debts with its motto: ‘Governments’ debt is with women, not with banks.

It was agreed that in 2013 International Women’s Day actions should denounce the gendered impact of neo-liberal policies and visibilize feminist action against them. This proposal was included in the Forum’s final statement, which also called for supporting the coordinated strike in several European countries on 14 November 2012 (14N).

Concerning the 14N, feminists in Spain indeed called for women – unemployed, precarious workers, housewives, domestic workers, undocumented workers, etc. – to join the 14N strike. Later, on the 8th of March, women marched in Madrid with banners that read: ‘We continue to struggle against the plunder of our lives and our bodies’ as well as ‘Women in the fight for a public and free healthcare’. Regrettably, feminist actions in other main European cities like London failed to articulate clearly the connections between neo-liberal attacks and women’s oppression.

One important, and feminist, initiative launched at the ESF was the Alter Summit, to be held in Athens on 7 and 8 June. This forum will be the next stepping stone in the building of convergence between movements opposed to anti-people and anti-planet policies promoted by European governments and institutions. Gladly, its manifesto incorporates and clearly articulates feminist views and demands.  Such statement is an improvement which I hope will also be reflected in how the Alter Summit’s sessions are organized. I agree with Stanislas Jourdan that a ‘key problem with social forums’ methodology is that everyone tend to attend workshops she is the most passionate about’ and I’d also like to see more participants who don’t openly call themselves ‘feminists’ join the struggle for gender justice. Stanislas makes the case for transversal workshops and sortition (random allotment) in his post.

It is heartening to see feminists at the forefront of European struggles for justice and I am positive the Alter Summit will overcome some of the weaknesses, from a feminist perspective, of the European Social Forum.

Virginia López Calvo, project coordinator at CAWN (Central America Women’s Network), and WIDE+ task force member.